How Stoic Philosophy Helped Me Become a Better Teacher

Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom.

Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled for nearly two decades until his death in 180BC. His reign wasn’t easy: wars with the Parthian Empire, the barbarian tribes menacing the empire on the norther border, the rise of Christianity as well as a plague that left numerous dead. In the last decade of his life he journaled his private thoughts giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his position. What he left behind was ‘Meditations’, a framework for dealing with the stresses of daily life as a leader of one of the most powerful empires in human history. But what could his philosophy which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others help us to become good teachers in the 21st Century?

To speak well of people on all occasions

Gossiping about others is enjoyable, but it will turn you against those you work with. Marcus noted that as rational beings we are made for co-operation ‘like the rows of the upper and lower teeth’. To be vexed with others therefore is an act against our very nature and an act of violence to ourselves. We must instead strive to be thoughtful, see the good in all those around us even if they prove to be ‘liars and unjust’, and consider the consequences of our every action even if it mean that we do not join in when others are expressing strong emotions. When you find yourself judging others angrily, temper this by recalling to mind your own faults.

Help yourself

Manage your own mood by learning to create your own cheerfulness and not depend on what Marcus calls ‘the tranquillity which others give’. It is ‘thy duty to order thy life well in every single act’. The idea that someone else will solve your problem for you is ‘idle hope’ and you will do well to take more initiative if you wish to take better care of yourself. Good fortune comes to those with ‘good emotions, good actions’ and what is good for you will be good for those around you too. To help, Marcus recited a sort of prayer daily in his struggle for self-mastery: ‘it is in my power to let no badness be in this soul, nor desire nor any perturbation at all’.

Don’t worry what others think

The feedback you’ll receive is of course important, but it can be overwhelming and lead you to overly judge yourself. Make sure to concentrate on your own thoughts and actions, to make sure they are ‘just and pure’ and do not concern yourself with the thoughts or actions of what Marcus labelled ‘stupid and ungrateful people’. If you are criticised, Marcus suggests we ‘see what kind of men they are’ as ‘thou wilt discover that there is no reason to take any trouble’.

The reversal of this is also true. It is worth remembering that ‘they who perhaps now are praising thee will very soon blame thee.’ Praise cannot always be trusted and nothing is made better having been praised so don’t worry if your good work is not recognised. Good work is good. You do not need to call out for others to come and see. The only reputation you need is of someone who is simple and modest. It should not be ‘in any man’s power to say truly of thee that thou are not good’. Paradoxically, we love ourselves and yet set less value on our own opinion than on the opinions of others. ‘Everything is opinion and everything is in thy power’. Take away the opinion to find calm.

Focus on what is necessary

You should always be asking: is this task necessary to do now or is there something more important you be doing? Marcus believes there was nothing more important than the work ‘of an intelligent living being, and a social being’. We are afforded the capacity to check our own feelings of arrogance, pleasure, pain, feelings of superiority. He did not believe we were created to enjoy ourselves and should be suspicious of feelings of pleasure. Unfortunately we often chase this, spending a disproportionate amount of our time trying to impress others so that we may cultivate a good reputation or other forms of wealth.  Similarly, and perhaps a more crucial question for your peace of mind: is this thought necessary? If not, let it pass. Don’t beat yourself up or let yourself be turned against others (See above). We often overlook what value we have in place of what we want. Reflect on what you have already and remind yourself of its worth by how eagerly you would seek it out if you did not have it already. Be content when even the smallest thing goes well and ‘consider such an event to be no small matter.’ Always think, as Marcus did: ‘Have you done something for the general interest? Well, then I have my reward’.

Don’t take it too seriously

Always consider the big picture and be pleased and content with whatever happens. After all, life is short. Marcus recommends perceiving any problems you’re having like dreams. He says ‘when thou has roused thyself from sleep and hast perceived that they were only dreams which troubled thee, now in thy waking hours look at these [your problems] as thou looked at those’. You are not your problems.

Expect change

Marcus asks ‘can anything useful be accomplished without change?’ and ‘Loss is nothing less than change’. ‘He who is afraid of pain will sometimes also be afraid of some of the things which will happen in the world.’ All we are given is the present time and we only have the present time to lose.

Don’t look for greener pastures

It is tempting to think that your problems would be solved by going elsewhere, but Marcus disagrees. He states ‘all things here are the same with things on top of a mountain’. Wherever you go, there you are and your problems will follow you too.

Five Ways to Make Marking More Tolerable

How I made my peace with marking

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Some great innovations have come about in recent years to help reduce the overall amount of marking teachers have to do, such as the use of verbal feedback and student-led peer or self assessment. While these have certainly helped to improve my work/life balance, it doesn’t get past the fact that for the average teacher there will still be several hours of marking to do each week.

Over the years I have figured out some ways of making this more bearable for myself:

Remember that the work is not yours

I sometimes felt that the stress of marking came from the sad realisation that some of my students didn’t try particularly hard. In instances like this it is tempting to judge yourself and to feel paranoia – if only I’d explained the task better; if only I had inspired them more; if only I’d reminded them of the consequences of not putting in sufficient effort…. In the end I had to remind myself that I have less influence over students than I might think. The quality of a student’s work was never really my task, it was theirs. Coming to this recognition was the first step towards lightening the burden by detaching myself from their results.

Remind yourself of the overall goal

Why did you become a teacher in the first place? The reason will differ for everyone, but keeping this bigger picture in mind can be motivating when marking becomes hard or feels stale. The passion you have for your job helps erase the suffering of the work.

Be a professional, not a hack

The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like. She is the teacher who understands that this is the price you pay to do good work because it means caring about what you do and doing a good job. However, the hack is a teacher who doesn’t care. He will do a passing job with the short-term view to getting it done, but he is not going to impact students in the long-term.

Work deeply

Maximising your concentration will not only improve how well you mark, but also help you get into a flow state. In this state it takes more energy to stop marking than it will to stick with the task in hand. Some methods I’ve found helpful include:

  • listening to white or brown noise (there are many Youtube videos which provide this)
  • unplugging from technology (putting your phone on silent and face down),
  • the ‘Pomodorro Method’ in which you use a timer to work in 20-minute bursts with a 5-minute breaks in-between (again, see Youtube for these).
  • Using an empty workspace that is free of visual cues persuading you to do something less challenging, such as check messages on social media, tidy up etc.

Reduce friction

Sometimes the actual challenge is not the marking itself, but getting over the hurdle of beginning in the first place. I used to rely on self-discipline to get marking done, which resulted in me not doing very much of it. I’ve since found the it helpful to trick myself into getting started by doing the following:

Stack the marking on top of a daily habit you already have

For example, if you are already in the habit of making a cup of tea at 4pm, you could decide ‘After I make a cup of tea, I will mark X number of books’ or ‘I will mark for 20 minutes’. Once the habit of making a cup of tea is done it’s easier to pivot into the act of marking if you have decided beforehand that this is what you plan to do.

Find a space to call your ‘marking zone’

My desk at school is where I sit to write emails and plan lessons. If I sit at my desk to mark, these simpler, more straightforward tasks will appear more attractive and tempt me away from the important job of marking. So I have a ‘marking zone’ which is an empty student desk in another part of the classroom. I only sit there to mark so when I sit myself down at this desk my brain know it’s marking time and nothing else.

Lower your expectations

If you’re finding it hard to get started, just tell yourself that you’re going to mark two books, or even just one. If it seems easy, you’re more likely to get started. Once you’ve started, you might want to continue. Anything is better than zero.

Associate marking with positive feelings

Re-frame any anxious feelings you have before marking. For instance, you’re not feeling nervous, you’re excited. If that doesn’t work, tell yourself that what you’re feeling is a sign that the work you’re about to do matters. Being more mindful of the language you use when talking about marking can make it seem more attractive. You don’t ‘have to’ mark student’s work – you ‘get to’ mark their work.

Surround yourself with exemplary colleagues

Look for other teachers who already have a regular marking habit or speak of marking in a positive way and avoid those who don’t. This can make marking seem more attractive as you’ll want to fit in and not be the black sheep of the department. Your actions are often a reflection of your identity. If you consider yourself a good teacher, you’re more likely to do the hard work required.

Reward yourself afterwards

The anticipation of a reward (something you’ll enjoy – another cup of tea, a 5-minute burst on Instagram, a chat with a colleague) causes dopamine to release into your brain which will motivate you to act on your good intention of marking.

This is not to say that I now love marking because I don’t. But I don’t dread it like I used to.

What do you think? Is there anything else you do to make marking more tolerable? Let me know in the comments below.

How to Save Money As a New Teacher

Use Pareto’s 80/20 Principle

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A newly qualified teacher starting work in England in 2020 will earn a minimum salary of £25,714 per annum (excluding schools in London and its fringes where this figure is slightly higher).

I never paid much attention to my pay when I began teaching. I spent what I had to on necessities, like food and rent, and refrained from spending anything further for fear of getting overdrawn. Any money I saved sat in my current account, but I didn’t pay much attention to how much (or little) this was.

If you haven’t yet considered how to manage your salary in a way that can offer you some financial security, here is some advice I wish I had known sooner:

Richard Koch in his book ‘The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More With Less’ takes the  Pareto Principle (the observation Pareto made that 80 per cent of Italy’s wealth was owned by 20 percent of its population) and notes that this can be applied more universally. In particular, that the minority of your decisions create most of your results.

When we apply this principle to your teaching salary, it means that 80 per cent of your salary should be spent on necessities and the remaining 20 per cent should be saved. These figures are relative though so it could be 90/10 or even 95/5. The important thing to remember is that it’s the the smaller percentage which is going to be of greater value to you in the long-term.

Let’s see what this could look like using 80/20 as an example:

Expenses (80 percent)Savings (20 percent)
Rent or mortgageSave and Never Touch (3%)
Council TaxIrregular Shocks (5%)
FoodBucket List (2%)
Utilities (Gas, Electricity, Internet, Phone etc.)‘You Asset’ (5%)
InsuranceInvestments (3%)
Personal Spending (a trip to the cinema, a meal out etc.)Giving Back (2%)
Pareto’s 80/20 Principle when applied to your salary

These days most bank accounts can be accessed online and with an app. Many even have the function to organise separate accounts (or ‘buckets’) to separate your saving goals. I suggest considering these:

Save and Never Touch

A cash reserve should you ever get in trouble. A decent sum would be six months worth of living expenses. Any extra after this could be shifted to investing (which is riskier).

Irregular Shocks

Cash you can use in case of emergencies, such as an unexpected dentist bill.

Bucket List

Money to put towards any future goals you might have, such as a trip abroad.

‘You Asset’

Money to invest in your personal education, such as courses, books or professional coaching.


Examples include buying Stocks and Shares, Bonds or cryptocurrency or on a business venture of which you have some knowledge. This is high risk, high return.

Giving Back

Not only could this be donations to charity, but it could also be presents for friends and family. Charity begins at home after all.

Some other ways of saving money:

Shop around

It’s worth noting that a lot of your expenses are negotiable. You can always have a go at haggling when your tenancy agreement is up for renewal. Your monthly food bill can go down depending on what you buy and where you shop. Utility companies are often keen to hold on to customers so if you’re happy to spend a bit of time on the phone explaining that you’re going to leave, you’ll usually get made an offer of a cheaper bill.

Bring your own lunch to school

I cringe to think how much money I spend on ready-made sandwiches in my first few years of teaching. A colleague commented that I must be very well-off, so I quickly started cooking larger portions for dinner at home and bringing in leftovers for lunch the next day.

Take care and repair

Look after your belongings and they will look after you. Instead of buying new clothes or shoes, consider whether they could be cleaned or mended for a fraction of the cost.

Buy or find second-hand

Items bought used are often far less expensive than they would be brand new and often work just as well. There have never been more ways of finding used items people no longer want and are willing to part with for a small sum or for free. I’ve used Ebay, Gumtree, Freecycle and Nextdoor to name but a few.

Stop Telling Yourself These Three Stories

We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves

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Five years ago, I did not possess the skills needed of a good teacher. Standing frightened in the headlights of such a realisation led to some behaviour I’m not proud of: I got easily cross with students and staff, I ignored feedback from my mentor, I gossiped about those I felt weren’t being supportive, and I believed some of my colleagues were willing me to fail.

But that’s not the worst part. To feel better I then unconsciously invented clever stories explaining to myself why I did this. These fell into three categories:

  • The Victim Story. I made myself out to be an innocent sufferer where I left out the role I played in the problem. I told myself that I was being punished for my virtues, not my vices. I exaggerated my own innocence.
  • The Villain Story. I overemphasised other people’s guilt or mistakes.
  • The Helpless Story. I thought of myself as someone who was powerless to do anything helpful. I felt convinced that there was no healthy alternative to dealing with the problem, and I felt justified in the action I was about to take.

In order to improve my relationships at work, to feel better about myself and to get better at teaching, I needed to recognise when I was telling these stories so that I could stop. I needed to flip them on their head to tell more useful stories instead; ones that led to a healthy action more in line with the results I wanted. These healthier stories looked like this:

You’re not a victim, you’re an actor

Are you pretending not to notice the role you played in the situation? Face up to the fact that maybe you did something to help cause the problem. Perhaps you were thoughtless? Stop being selective with your perception of yourself.

They’re not a villain, they’re a person

Ask yourself why a reasonable person might do what this person is doing. Replace your judgement with empathy. What if that person was just trying to give you a hand?

You’re not helpless, you’re able

What do you really want? What would you do if that was your true goal? You’d probably openly and honestly discuss the problem rather than gossip. When you refuse to think of yourself as helpless you begin to hold yourself more accountable.

If you can master the stories that you tell yourself, you’ll free yourself of the unhealthy emotions that come with them and will be able to get on with the business of getting better.

A 10-Step Guide to Having Difficult Conversations With Students

Raise your words, not your voice

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As a teacher, you’ll sometimes need to hold difficult one-on-one conversations with students who are not meeting expectations. This could be for ongoing bad behaviour, a bad attitude or poor quality work. For the inexperienced, this can lead to unfortunate arguments which are exhausting and leave you both feeling sour. In order to avoid flared tempers, here are some steps I’ve learnt that have helped me speak to students with more curiosity and patience:

Step 1: Share the facts

Facts are persuasive because they’re undeniable and are unlikely to prove controversial.

Step 2: Tell your story

Your story is your interpretation of the facts. It’s important to make sure that this is presented as a possible story and not a concrete fact. For example: ‘In my opinion…’ or I’m not sure whether you intend to mean this, but I’m beginning to wonder if….’ Or ‘Maybe you think…’. Afterwards you can ask them to clarify: ‘Is that what’s going on?’

Step 3: Contrast

Make your view clearer with contrasting statements. You could say words to the effect of ‘I know you care about…’ etc. ‘My only issue is…’. Be careful here not to apologise for offering your point of view.

Step 4: Ask for their facts and story

Ask the student to share their view. Make it clear you really want to hear what they have to say: ‘What am I missing?’ ‘Do you see it differently?’ or ‘Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I really want to hear your thoughts.’

Step 5: Encourage testing

If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.

Step 6: Mirror

If they seem hesitant, play devil’s advocate. Model what this sounds like by disagreeing with your own view: ‘Maybe I’m wrong here’.

Step 7: Paraphrase

Re-phrase, without repeating word-for-word, what they’ve told you to acknowledge that you have listened to them. Do this is in a tone that validates their point and doesn’t not ridicule it.

Step 8: Agree or disagree

Say that you agree when you do. Add any details that have been left out. Compare where you differ. This might sound like: ‘I think I see things differently. Let me describe how.’

Step 9: Decide and assign

It’s best when a consensus is reached where you both support one decision, phrased something like ‘Moving forward I need you to… and I will…’. Make sure you’ve answered: Who? Does what? By when? And how will I follow up? Write these down to show that you’re committed.

Step 10: Hold them accountable

Refer back to your notes. If either the student (or yourself) has failed to live up to the promise they made earlier you’ll need to have another conversation, repeating the steps above.

What might this look like?

Let’s say a student of yours, Stephen, has failed to submit three homework tasks in a row. You’ve used the school behaviour policy of setting a detention each time (which they attended), but their behaviour is not changing and they seem to have become resentful resulting in a few small arguments during lessons. It’s time to have a difficult conversation:

Teacher: Stephen, you haven’t handed in the past three homework tasks [sharing the facts]. It seems that you’re struggling with the topic. Is that what’s going on? [telling your story]

Stephen: No, I get the topic. I don’t know why I don’t do the homework.

Teacher: I know you care about your GCSEs. My only issue is that you might not get the grade you need to do what you want to do next. What am I missing here? Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I want to hear your thoughts. [asking for their facts and story]

Stephen: I dunno. I’m just lazy, I guess. What’s the problem? I come to the detentions, don’t I?

Teacher: Look, maybe I’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe you are motivated to do the work, but there’s another issue stopping you from doing it? [Encouraging testing] 

Stephen: I just find it boring. It’s not your fault, it’s just the subject. I don’t really care that much about Macbeth to be honest.

Teacher: You seem unhappy about that. [Mirroring]

Stephen: Well, I know English is important. I’m worried that I’m going to get bad results.

Teacher: So you’re feeling anxious about doing well in English? [Paraphrasing]

Stephen: Yeah, I suppose.

Teacher: Year 11 is a difficult year, certainly. Everyone in the class feels under pressure to perform. [Agreeing] Not doing the homework is only going to make your feeling of anxiety worse [Disagreeing]. You have a homework task due for next week. You know that homework is non-negotiable so I expect that to be attempted. [Deciding] You’ll need to do the task by next Monday. [assigning]

(next Monday) Teacher: Stephen, can I see your homework? [Holding him accountable]

Stephen: Sir, I did the first two questions, but I didn’t do the last one.

Teacher: The homework task was to attempt all the questions. That’s what it says on Show My Homework. [sharing the facts] (Notice how this is the beginning of another difficult conversation and the steps should begin again. Although the situation hasn’t been perfectly resolved in the first instance, progress has been made, which is what you should be aiming for).

Ten steps may seem like a lot to remember in what will probably be a three-minute conversation. To begin with, you could have the steps printed off in front of your to refer to, but the more you do this, the more natural it will be. And the more you engage students in these difficult conversations, the better your relationships will be.